Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dismal Science

Climate scientists only have themselves to blame for the growing denialist cacophony. The recent flap over climate data isn’t the reason. Rather, failure to invite economists to the climate party has left solution advocates bereft of their best possible weapon. Paul Krugman’s recent piece in the Times Sunday Magazine is hardly an auspicious entre. He hews to cap ‘n trade dogma in tones of a grade-school lecture. We’d do better if Cap ‘n Crunch led the fight. America’s fear of foreigners is ripe for exploitation towards development of exportable, carbon-free technologies.
From the beginning of the Holocene to 1950, the human population grew from close-to-nothing to 2.5 billion. From 1950 to 2050 - a mere 100 years (a geological eye-blink) - human population will grow at least another 6.5 billion people. Since global population is now 6.8 billion, it is virtually certain that 2050 will see 9+ billion people.
Along this time line we've seen an explosion of capitalism that spawned the biggest prosperity surge in human history. Every person on the planet who experiences a rising living standard uses more carbon. For example, meat is the first item purchased in larger quantities. You can't blame people for wanting to better feed their children. The big news is that most of world is just beginning to ramp up their carbon output.
China passed the US in total carbon emissions 2 years ago, yet China's per-capita GDP is only one-eighth the US (in purchasing power parity). India is much further back, with per-capita GDP less than one-half of China's and 800 million people (2.6 times the US population) living in poverty. What do you think happens when billions of poor people just slightly improve their living standard? Now consider what happens when the global middle class adds 2 billion people (7 times US population) over the next 20 years.
Global annual CO2 increase fell one-third in the early-90s recession. The current recession - which is far worse - hasn't dented CO2 output. Not a freaking scratch! The developing world is already driving the CO2 bus for a simple reason: developed nations account for only 10% of global population. The pace of global annual CO2 output has more than doubled over the past 50 years. Funnily enough, human population doubled over the same period.
We’re going to add a similar number of people over the next 40 years and they, along with most people already living, will become progressively larger consumers of carbon-based processes, like making electricity or growing beef. There are many things climate change denialists don't consider. My favorite is the global explosion in consumer finance. Twenty years ago you couldn't finance a motorcycle in Vietnam, get a mortgage in Brazil or get personal credit in Indonesia. While China gets all the bad press for air pollution, completed its national highway system ~10 years ahead of schedule and bought more new cars last year than we did (for the first time), replacement of bicycles with motorcycles in Hanoi (BTW, Vietnam has the same population as Germany), a Brazilian housing boom and Indonesian economic growth sparked by consumer credit are overlooked.
It isn’t us anymore. CO2 growth is global, rapidly-accelerating and apparently unstoppable. China's economy will double every 9 years at trend-line growth rates and India's will double every twelve. China offered a vague 20% carbon reduction at the last climate meeting. Do the math on the net increase in carbon output over the next 9 years. The last time CO2 was at present levels (388ppm), there was less global ice, seas were higher, northern Canada was a temperate forest and reptiles were a lot bigger. The blindingly simple truth about climate change is that: CO2 is a leading indicator; average temperature lags behind CO2; sea level lags behind temperature. Given population growth, the global prosperity explosion and CO2 levels that were last seen 30 million years ago, why is anyone surprised by rising temperatures and melting ice?
The funny thing about climate change denialists is that free market signals on climate change reality show up in many of their mailboxes, as higher insurance premiums or notices of canceled coverage. Liberty Mutual, Allstate, StateFarm & others have either walked away from lucrative markets, exponentially increased premiums, red-lined coastal markets, gotten in fights with state regulators or all of the above. You'd expect to see the first free market signals on climate change from the property insurance industry. If it was mere corporate greed major insurers wouldn't be walking away from billions of premium dollars. Last year, an insurance industry association publicly issued a recommendation that its members should measure and disclose climate change risk. Yet another unmistakable signal that the dismal science matters most to acceptance of climate change solutions.

Data sources: NOAA, CIA World Factbook, TheEconomist; UN; US Census Bureau

UPDATE (July 5, 2010) - The New york Times finally gets a clue. This article says "...even as Beijing imposes the world’s most rigorous national energy campaign, the effort is being overwhelmed by the billionfold demands of Chinese consumers". Even though TheRaven predicted growth in global consumer demand would outrun the transition from carbon-based energy, The Times projection of China's CO2 output is shocking.
UPDATE (August 5, 2010) - the New York Times gets another clue with tolerable reporting on political stability, fast growth and emergence of a consumer society in the worlds 4th largest country and 3rd largest democracy. Pay no heed to descriptions of Indonesia as a "Muslim country". Indonesia is a pluralist democracy in which religion plays a similar role to American Christianity. THe artcile deosn't mention climate change but you can connect the dots.

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